More than for any other kind of ensemble, it would seem, success for a percussion ensemble depends on the deft integration of timbre and space. Percussion instruments—made of wood, metal, glass–encompass a broad spectrum of sound colors and seem to want the space, alone or in combination, to let those colors make an impression. With their vast array of standard and non-standard percussion instruments, The Los Angeles Percussion Quartet—Matt Cook, Justin DeHart, Cory Hills and Nick Terry—positively revels in timbral variety. Not only vibes, drums, marimba and glockenspiels, which they strike, bow and rub, but metal sheets; pipes and planks; struck and bowed vessels containing water; and a miscellany of objects too idiosyncratic to mention. And in the five compositions they realize in Beyond, their third album, they show a sensitivity to the way space helps define sound by clarifying structure.
Beyond is formatted as a three-disc collection—two CDs and a Blu-ray surround-sound audio disc. The highlight of CD One is Christopher Cerrone’s beautiful five-part suite Memory Palace for percussion, odd instruments, and electronics. The odd instruments include tuned metal pipes, tuned cut wood slats, wine bottles filled with different volumes of water to produce different pitches, and a restrung cheap guitar. On the face of it, these objects are little more than detritus rescued from a rubbish heap, but their effects are distinctly musical. The guitar–a somewhat surprising presence in a percussion ensemble–gives the first section its characteristic sound. The wood slats stand at the center of the second section, carrying a melody hinting at harmonic cadences; section three effortlessly folds the sound of the metal pipes into a recording of wind chimes made at Cerrone’s parents’ house. The fourth section’s rhythmic pulses played tremolando on wood provide a refracted image of the second section, while the piece concludes in an appropriately reflective atmosphere carried on the electronics’ simple I-IV-V harmonies.
The disc’s opening piece, Daníel Bjarnason’s Qui Tollis, shapes musical space through dynamics as well as sound density. Beginning with a quiet rattling of metal, the piece gradually builds with vibes before settling into a muscular rhythm underscored by bass drums which then recedes into silence. Disc One also includes composer Ellen Reid’s Fear-Release, an episodic work featuring composite timbres fusing the high resonance of metal with the hollow thump of large drums, and Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s sparely dramatic Aura, a work to be performed in the dark with three of the percussionists circling the stationary fourth.
Andrew McIntosh’s forty-minute-long I Hold the Lion’s Paw fills CD Two and is also presented in surround-sound on the Blu-ray disc. Like Aura, which programs musical space as a function of literal space, I Hold the Lion’s Paw makes the physical location of the players a factor within its compositional structure. The musicians and instruments are dispersed—ideally, they surround the audience—in such a way as to give phrases the appearance of extension in space as well as in time. Space, both aural and physical, doesn’t carve the music at the joints so much as it is the joints, binding and separating sequences of sounds and marking the beginnings and endings of small- and large-scale structural elements. The sounds themselves tend to be grouped into single timbre clusters or clusters of related timbres; a salient feature of the piece’s tonal makeup is the use of microsounds, such as are obtained from a set of aluminum pipes tuned to quarter tones, and bowls whose pitch is raised and lowered according to changes in the amount of water they contain. The end result is an uncluttered play of rhythms and colors that rewards patient listening.